Birds of Passage (2019; Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, March 1, at the Opera Plaza 4 in San Francisco.
Embrace of the Serpent director Guerra and first-timer Gallego deliver this strangely static but wholly unexpected and unusual gangster saga, purportedly “inspired by true events” that occurred between 1968 and 1980.
José Acosta stars as Rapayet, one of the Wayuú people, an indigenous ethnic group clutching to outmoded tradition in northern Colombia. Stuck between two worlds, Rapayet speaks the Spanish tongue of the alijuna conquerors, yet he tries to remain true to the traditions of his people. Eager to produce the dowry for his would-be bride’s family, Rapayet partners with his unhinged alijuna friend Poncho to sell pot to Peace Corps kids, almost unwittingly igniting the Colombian drug trade in the process.
The story gets segmented into five Roman Numeral-bearing “songs” sung over the course of twelve years, almost matching Luca Guadagnino’s “Six Acts and an Epilogue in a Divided Berlin” Suspiria remake for title card pretentiousness. Still, the epic scope and unexpected time-jumps in Birds of Passage lead to a number of gasp-inducing moments. An ivory mansion grows out of the barren desert overnight and a hotheaded child suddenly transforms into an adult-aged amalgamation of Sonny and Fredo Corleone.
As was the case with Embrace of the Serpent, the film nearly gets overwhelmed by portentous symbolism and the drearily good intentions of the filmmakers. But before you shoot the word messenger for saying that Werner Herzog has nothing to worry about, allow me to point out that I was duly entranced by the poetry and power of Birds of Passage.